The Hold Steady: Spinners


“It sounds like Christian rock.”

So this month’s favorite album is quickly disparaged by the middle school music critic who rides shotgun with me on my daily rounds. But what does he know? He likes hip-hop, spends inordinate amounts of time studying the violin, has no frame of reference for the great and hallowed canon of rock ‘n roll music.  But he has an ear, and the crunchy chords, the peppy beat, the anthemic sweep on the top half of Teeth Dreams reminds him of certain Sunday mornings.

It’s tasteful, it’s slick, it’s pro – and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. Except that The Hold Steady’s not that kind of band. And Craig Finn’s not that kind of singer. The guy from Pitchfork called it “handily the Hold Steady’s worst-sounding album.” (That’s an excellent review, by the way. It really negates the need for anyone to write anything else about this album again, ever.) He’s got a point.

I’d have dialed it in differently. But it’s still The Hold Steady, still the same beat-poet meets E-Street vibe. If you peel back the production, if you give the songs a chance to breathe, the kids come out like they always do. Emerging from chillout tents, the party pits. Hoodrats crawling up from under crumbling bridges, boys and girls wrapped in that American sadness.

Just like my experience with band itself: The Hold Steady found me once I saw through the media-molded Brooklyn-based pose, the hipster affectation, realized that they were mid-west born, great-lakes raised. Priests of the prairie, shouting out loud about this stuck-between-stations life, setting free the souls shackled to another second-string city. These are my people, I tell ya. We’ve knee-scraped the same prayers, clutched at the same cross, hail-mary’ed our last-call hopes on another shot of abandon.

“She’s two years off some prairie town, she goes out most every night, she dresses up and she spins around.”

That’s from “Spinners,” the second track on the album. It catches up with one of these kids somewhere in NYC. She’s trying it all on, figuring out how it works for Carrie Bradshaw and Lena Dunham, defiantly failing. This girl, I’ve seen her before. I’ve watched her graduate year after year, shook hands with her parents at the late-May parties. Wished her well on the internship, the indentured adventure to the big city.

I keep getting older. She stays the same.

And I’ve got a hunch I’ll be growing old with these guys too. That’ll be me on the porch with Craig Finn someday: rocking-chaired with a don’t-mind-if-I-do flask, spinning stories about the same wide-eyed kids. Over and over and over.

So then, here’s my take on the tune:


play here: Spinners

download link: mp3 @320

Don’t Change: David Bazan’s Strange Negotiations

david bazan strange negotiations grant wentzel

So I finished up another of my semi-annual record review/recording projects. Below is “Don’t Change,” a track from last year’s Strange Negotiations by David Bazan. I’d love to crank out one of these every couple of weeks, but it’s always trickier than it sounds.  Nonetheless, I can’t seem to quit it. I’m already thinking about what’s next.  Maybe Father John Misty or Jack White? We’ll see how it goes.

You wouldn’t think a David Bazan song would be that hard to sing until you try. The trouble is that he’s good. He’s not one for vague vocal affectations pretending at a melody.  Instead he writes real notes, and the kind of notes that jump around more than the usual step or two.  Singing this was more like performing a show tune than something folky.  “Don’t Change” wouldn’t let me get away with doing my own thing, swinging through the pitch, hoping to that it was all close enough to get around the bases.  I could either sing it right or I could sing it wrong.

But I did make one change:  I flipped the gender of the first verse.  Songs about girls are always more interesting than songs about boys.  When a guy’s messing up, you might try to offer a little help, but there’s always some default element of “Dude, deal with it.”  It’s not right, but we expect males to have a deep well of self-reliance. If they don’t tap into that manly reservoir, that’s their lazy-ass fault.  When a girl’s in trouble, everything is a little more tragic. The damsel’s in distress, as the story goes.

I’d like to think that everyone can relate to this song, but maybe we all haven’t strayed so far off the path. Although David Bazan’s struggles with the bottles are well self-documented, it doesn’t have to be the drink that trips you up. We’ve all got our issues. We all think we’ll magically get it all together tomorrow. But when nothing different was done yesterday, nothing’s changed today, and on it goes. Habits, they’re hard to break.

Strange Negotiations isn’t as good as the last one, but it’s still really good.  The guitars are crunchier — a little more rock ‘n roll — which is never a bad thing. There’s plenty of Bazan at his best here: The imagery worthy of William Carlos Williams, the sad-eyed delivery, the hooky guitar lines and every-hit-counts drumming. His losing-my-religion theme is getting a touch preachy, but I get it.  I’ve hit my head on that floor a few times too, but Something always bounced me back.

So don’t change, David Bazan. You’re doing still doing the work, still chasing down your vocation.

my take on don’t change


I Love It When The Band Keeps Getting Better: House Of Heroes

House Of Heroes 01 Grant WentzelHouse Of Heroes 02 Grant WentzelHouse Of Heroes 03 Grant Wentzel

Because how often does that happen?

All of my favorites have had their moments, and sometimes I’ve been lucky enough to catch the right show at the right time to add some live proof to the mix. But there’s rarely a need to repeat the experience.  You’re rolling the dice, and the odds are not in your favor. Whatever it was that captured your heart on that first magic night is likely be over.  Maybe the show got too big and your love’s lost beneath the bright lights. Maybe the venue’s too small, and golly it’s just so sad to see them now.

Not that I always mind. Rock shows are like pizza: even when they’re bad they’re still pretty good. You know I’ll always be up for catching another Jane’s tour, and if Against Me and The Hold Steady swing through town again, I’ll be there in a heartbeat.  You can even go tell Tegan & Sara that I’ll be back.  I’m very forgiving.  Except for you, Mr. Matisyahu, but that’s another story.

But I digress.  This post is about House Of Heroes, that rare band that keeps getting better. I used to catch them around Columbus a bit, and they were surprisingly solid for some local kids. They bent ears by adding a few tricks to the tunes – a vamp, a breakdown, switching up the ol’ I-IV-V rock ‘n roll formula with some harmonic imagination.

That was all well and good, but somewhere along the line they really learned how to play.  I hate to use the term metal – it’s charged like lighting – but the chops are getting so sharp, it’s getting hard to avoid the word.  But don’t worry, these are pop guys with a knack for a good riff, which makes them the exact opposite of the Def Leppards of the world (riffers with an ear for a good tune – not that there’s anything wrong with that either!)

As the fates would have it, they play Sioux Falls every Labor Day at the LifeLight fest — just 10 miles of dirt road from my abode — so I’ve seen ’em here more than I ever used to see them there.  I’m really glad they make the trip, and that they spend the rest of the year tightening up new tunes for the tour.

‘Til next year, boys.  Keep up the good work!

(Photos by Grant Wentzel, kindly used by permission.)


Top Albums: 2011 Edition, Part 2

As promised.  Here’s my personal top 5 or so that caught the ear in 2011.  I tried to keep most of this confined to 2011 releases, but I’ll be making an exception starting with…


The Clash:  Live In Akron at the Civic Theater

Yes, this is a bootleg.  I mention it for three reasons:  First of all, it’s The Clash, so it’s great. Secondly, it illustrates where a lot of my listening has happened over the last year.  Everyone knows that you can beg/borrow/steal most anything you want from the internet.  While your opinions may vary on the commercial/legal/moral aspects of this topic, on the happy-hippie side of things it’s also birthed an explosion of pro-bono, fan-fueled, bootleg distribution unearthing all manner of gems. Crate-diggers would have died for this stuff a decade ago.  Now it’s easy listening.

Thirdly, when it comes to music, it’s the personal connection that trumps all. When this show was taped, I was probably consulting with the docs on my tonsillectomy just down the street at Children’s Hospital. How Mom & Dad could have missed the show is beyond me, but I do thank them for prioritizing my health.


We All Have Hooks For Hands:  Girls

When I first arrived in Sioux Falls, I set out a-looking for the local scene.  Internet searches came up dry, and alt-weeklies were not to be found.  I was bummed, but I kept my eyes open and eventually started to see things in a new light.  Sure, this town might not be big enough to support a hipster enclave or a proper strip of dive bars and record shops, but who needs that anyway?  There’s more than enough talented people here waiting tables and roasting coffee while staying up all night GarageBand’ing their dreams and making something beautiful.

Exhibit one:  We All Have Hooks For Hands latest EP, Girls.  This is a fine example of what I’ll call team-sport indie rock, a twee-punk shout-along sound somewhere between Wavves and that Battles tune.  (Hopefully, some better examples will come along before I publish this.)  Anyway, you can download it for free.  Give this video a try and tell me that it can’t hang with anything the kids in your town are putting out.  I double-dog dare ya.


The Black Swans: Don’t Blame The Stars

To paraphrase Cinderella, sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till you’re gone.  I had to move a thousand miles away before I gave The Black Swans a fair shake.  To push the road metaphor a little too far, they met me exactly halfway in Rockford, IL with a Daytrotter Session, tossing off a hasty taste of forgotten sounds and leaving me missing what I had once skipped past.

So I looked up their latest on Amazon and had it shipped over.  It arrived full of surprises and contradictions.  Teardrop tunes, surreal spoken-word setups, rooster calls.  Funny stuff riding shotgun with a fiddler’s ghostDon’t Blame The Stars is a torch song to lost loves, murky old Americana, and some Desire-era Dylan.  Yes, sometimes it’ll make you laugh, but there’s all sorts of blood on those tracks.


Fleet Foxes:  Helplessness Blues

‘Bout time to include something on my list that might be on yours?  Around the age of 21, I’d imbibed so much Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, and CSN that my body revolted and I couldn’t stomach another drop.  I was off the stuff for years, but when Helplessness Blues hit the middlebrow circuit I fell right off the wagon.  It’s simply gorgeous stuff, fearfully and wonderfully made.  But it’s the lyrics that set the hook when they sang out some of my own post-adolescent, 20-something thoughts.  The kind of growing up and making something of it thoughts that echo through your 30’s (and from what I’ve been told, your 40’s and 50’s too.)  Who knows, maybe next I’ll order up a shot of Sam Beam with an Iron & Wine chaser.


TV Girl:  Benny And The Jetts

Back to the internet-fueled topic at the top, I do a fair amount of blog-spotting, scanning hipster posts from tertiary towns that gotta dig up their own good times.  The enthusiasm runs higher when you’ve got skin in the game.  I mean really, Brooklynites and Silver Lakers – don’t you just choke on the choices?   My head would swim, my distracted heart lying lonely and loveless, left cold every morning after last night’s next big thing.

So who’s TV Girl?  I don’t know, but this little EP was floating around for free on some blog somewhere.  It’s a second-rate recording, a bedroom labor of love.  But I’m thankful for it.  It’s good for driving around town.  It makes me smile every time.  So go for it, all y’all:  Make a record.  Put it on BandCamp.  Give it away or charge me 5 bucks.  You might not make it big, but somebody out there will dig it.  Somebody like me.


Top Albums: 2011 Edition, Part 1

As a younger man, I flirted with the thought that I might make it as a rock ‘n roll reviewer.  A few school paper write-ups to the contrary, I chased that dream about as realistically as a 5-year hoping to be an astronaut.  While I still kick myself for not pursuing the pen with purpose during those middle years when time was abundant, sleep arbitrary, and the brain constantly buzzed with the shiny newness of all things, I now know that Professional Pop Critic would never have been my beat.

See, I just can’t keep up.  I always think I’ve got a pretty good handle on things until sometime around December 2nd when I first catch a Best Of The Year podcast or three.  And then it dawns on me that I never did get around to hearing all of the recommendations shot my way.  Good stuff too.  Stuff I should like, and probably will in a year or two.   But right now I’m still stuck in the past, living life like it’s 2010.

I know that the Black Keys’ El Camino should be on the top of my list, but to be honest I didn’t really delve into Brothers until a few months back.  I love my lady Feist, but I’ve yet to hear anything but a single or two off the new one.  (Her live set Look At What The Light Did Now has been keeping me content.)

David Bazan’s Strange Negotiations is way up on the must-listen list, but after the gut-punch of his last one, I’m taking my time until I have a few hours to recover from the expected trauma to my little soul. And I’m sure I’ll love all of the new Wild Flag, Deer Tick, Yuck, M83, Girls, and even Ezra Furman.  Just ask me next year, m’kay?

This not to say that I didn’t find some great stuff this year.  So mañana I’ll post a few things that came along, that I might treat to more thoughts more fully when the moment strikes.  Stay tuned!

So We Went With A Little Bohemian Rhapsody

With only one night in London, we had to make the most of it.

Shooting straight to the top of the pops, blasting past all of the Mammas & Mias and Les’es & Mis’es, ditching the Wicked Witches and Masked Phantoms and Lion Kings, we grabbed the last two standing-room-only tickets for the Saturday showing of Queen:  We Will Rock You.

We had no idea what it was all about.  We were just there for the tunes.

Turns out the show was The Eschaton of Mercury and May:  A nightmare future where a Killer Queen has assimilated the Ga-Ga youth and Talibanned all musical instruments.  This Killer Queen controls the brainwashed with a platter of pre-approved tween cheese.  (Akin to the love child of Zappa’s Joe’s Garage and the Disney Channel.)

Alas, there is one wrinkle in her plan of complete pop-cultural control.  She didn’t count on the rise of The Bohemians, shepherds of the sacred texts prophesying the coming of Galileo and Scaramouche, and the irrepressible life-affirming urge to Rock.

And so it was that one young man from a poor family had the power to release the sacred guitar (Excalibur-style) from the ruins of Wembley Stadium.  Messianic salvation by six-string.   Thus were The Bohemians the champions, my friends.

Silly show.  Great music.  I expected a band, but I didn’t see one.  Still, the speakers were filled with a spot-on re-creation of Brian May’s one-of-kind grind looping around adaptations of Queen’s already stage-ready theatrical hits.  Surprise!  During the third act they dropped the side curtains to reveal the most professional tribute band in London armed with Brian May guitars and we-nailed-it-again grins.

Fun crowd.  Not a bunch of trampling tourists and arrogant Americans, but lit-up locals making an extra-pint night of it.  Life-long fans looking for a lager-triggered flashback.

I thought I knew the records well, but a few of the songs were a mystery.  At first I assumed that they were digging deep into the catalog for lost nuggets, but the natives seemed to know them word-for-word.  Things must have charted a little differently in the mother country.

But as the curtains closed, there was one omission that broke my heart.  Despite many, many opportunities, the stars didn’t sing our song.  I couldn’t believe it.  After two hours of classic Queen, where was My Best Friend?

Then I looked over.  She was right beside me.

Cracker: Still Strummin’

Caught the Cracker Acoustic World Tour the other day.

Still feeling new in town, curiosity got the best of me to go out and see what the Gen X’rs are up to on a Tuesday in the Great White North.  Turns out my kin are still alive and kicking.  It was standing room only in the little bar on the edge of our cozy downtown on a subzero evening.

Just like I find at most of these shows, there’s never a short supply of single guys like me, slow-sipping a beer in the corner, thinking other thoughts of pop-culture geekistry.  We don’t go to these show alone.  We go to be alone together.  We line up, each head tilted just enough to see the stage over the shoulder of the next guy.  (Though this feat has proven more challenging as they grow ’em a little taller up here.)

All were accounted for:  The reads-too-many-comics guy, the poor fella broken by his attempts to achieve respectability, the dad drafted by responsibility, the trio of guys who sure-as-hell once rocked and whom I would have known had I served my local-bozo* tour-of-duty in 90’s South Dakota instead of 00’s Ohia.

Good to see them all in one room again.

So how was the show?  Solid.  Like hickory.  Solid in the way that says, “We’ve been doing this awhile.”  There’s really no substitute for experience.  Forget about youthful enthusiasm, energy, vim, vigor, vitality.  All so much peacock-plumed tumescence.  Bound to pop and fade fast.  It’s the Lifetime Achievement Award that my heroes are working for.

Can’t say I was a BIG Cracker fan, but I’ve burned through my share of Camper Van Beethoven cassettes.  The skinny goofballs have grown up to resemble the stout men of noble stature that grow like corn on the cob out here on the prairie.  Furry and formidable is the new David Lowery.  An ever more serious strummer of the six string.

It was good to share the air with him, although I’da paid double to hear “Take The Skinheads Bowling.”


*The actual self-deprecating term of endearment that we used for our fellow musicians was “local ass-clown,” but that seemed a touch offensive.  So, instead of writing “local ass-clown” I changed it to “local-bozo” which carries the same meaning, yet without the possibility of distracting my readers with a potentially offensive phrase like “local ass-clown.”  You can thank me for my sensitivity anytime.

Vampire Weekend: Contra!

You ask me how I can like this band of phonies.  And I ask you:  How can I not?

I grew up on Graceland.  I was a boy in a bubble and that bubble was mercifully, occasionally, popped by missives shot off from the head-tops of East Coast sons of privilege and promise.  From Salinger to the Beats to Woody to Wolfe to Wharton to the VU to Tim Gunn.  Sure, I’m painting with a broad brush here, but from a Pittsburgh-birthed point of view, everyone from the Upper East Side to the Village had it better than me.  Not having much else in common with Warhol except for the whole hometown thing, I had to sit back and watch.  Just a doe-eyed extra in a Whit Stillman film, hoping to someday make it past a velvet rope.

And anyway, the Strokes made the critical cut, right?

As for the music, I like Contra just fine.  The rock-band to what-have-you ratio seems askew, but sophomore efforts often come off a little over-produced.  I’m not sure it’ll plant a seed in the sandy soils of my heart like their first disc did, but that’s more about time/place than anything else.

That first Vampire Weekend landed a little ray of light on my life during some dim days.  I’m not in that same head-space at the moment, but it’s good to know that they’re picking up where Buffett left off, keeping the ice in the blender for a better-read bunch of preppy parrotheads.

Art Brut Vs. Satan

I find this record comforting.  It takes the edge off of life like Bob Marley used to, back a few years ago when I didn’t have any real responsibilities to wig-out about.  Unfortunately, “Don’t worry about a thing ’cause everything’s gonna be alright,” just doesn’t cut the cheese anymore.

Those sorts of sentiments did wonders back when the semester would screech to a halt regardless of the marks on my final exams.  Or back when a job was something you found in the newspaper, applied for, and started the same day after answering “YES” to the question: “Do you have a valid driver’s license and reliable transportation.”  Yeah, everything used be alright when any day you could walk away.

I’ll still take a stroll with those Three Little Birds, but life is no longer such a beach.  Responsibilities and consequences are now part of what it means to get out of bed in the morning.  The boys in Art Brut are catching on to this.  Late 20’s and holding on for dear life, Art Brut is smart enough to know that modern life is cracked, but haven’t figured out the fix.  It’s nice to pop on the headphones and know that I’m not alone.

I guess it really comes down to rolling back the clock just a few years.  When I’m 44, I’m sure there will be plenty of 30-something sentiments that tug nostalgically at my heart strings.  I don’t know what they might be (Joan Baez and Carole King are frighteningly coming to mind) but I’ll find out when I get there.

But the tunes of Art Brut — the simple yet spot-on guitars, the lyrics of lament, the self-haranguing humor, the Cure cover — whip me back to a romanticized past.  It’s a little cathartic break until duty calls.  Personal demons purged, I’ll take Art Brut FTW.

Matisyahu : Light

This post has been clogging up the blog for the last week.  I just can’t seem to get it right, and now I know why.

I like to write about things that I like.  I try to stay positive, to be a thumbs-up, glass-is-half-full fella.  But even when trying my best to stick to the bright side of life, I find it’s all too easy to slip into cynicism and find fault.  Just a few snarky remarks can undercut the upbeat and chase the joy away from a sunshiny day.  And as the adage goes, it only takes one bad apple to poison the punch.

So here’s the problem:  I just don’t like this record!  I love Matisyahu, but something was off.  So yesterday, to double-check my lens, cleanse the palate, and tighten up the eardrums, I listened back to my (and, I’m guessing, your) introduction to the man:  Live At Stubb’s.  What a disc!  I was lucky enough to catch the Stubb’s-era band shortly thereafter.  They took the stage and put on the kind of show that gets you high even if you’re keeping your feet on the ground, chemically speaking.

The band was still a little green, which you can hear on Stubb’s.  For every hot lick and tight break, there’s a meandering noodle-to-nowhere moment.  Babylon By Bus this was not.  But the troubles were forgivable as the guys were still fresh enough to get really, Really, OMG! excited about playing to a few thousand people in a college town a thousand miles from home.  They weren’t deer-in-the-headlights self-star struck, but there was this sense of collective joy that the dream was coming true and we were all in this together.

And the frontman had a burning fire in the belly.  Far past rolling in the shtick, his earnest recounting of his people’s past and his Let’s-Go-Build-Us-A-Temple! enthusiasm for the future made you forget that there was anything strange about the scene.  But, alas, that was then.

The critical response to this new album has been strangely kind.   Not that it’s been fawning; it’s been split 50/50.   What surprises me is that the critiques of the actual music have been fair to positive, pointing out the Sly & Robbie collaborations and other bits of finely-tuned production.  The scathing remarks have been directed much more at the man, this oddity named Matisyahu.  Sometimes it’s cheap shots at all purveyors of  kidnapped reggae, a broadside condemnation of  the music’s colonization by the fairer-skinned peoples, with curses cast in passing at the likes of Sublime and 311.  (The Clash will always get a true-punk pass on these things.)  Often the ire is focused on the historical inaccuracy of the spectacle.

Although Matisyahu stretches your eclecticism tolerance to new heights, what could be more natural?  A hippie kid rediscovering his Jewish roots would find it hard to miss some sort of cosmic connection to the chant-down-Babylon music of the Jamaican champions of the Ethiopian Zion.  If you’ve got a beef with authenticity, pick a fight with the original Rastafarians for misappropriating 3000 years of glorious tradition (from Moses to Sandy Koufax), not some Phish-following kid who decided to borrow it back.

Not that this is a reggae album, which is the real problem.  “Light” is a mash-up of Hip-Hop hype and Jack Johnson tripe that loses itself in a thousand-layered studio sheen.  But I’m a loyal fan, and I’ll be here for the next one.  Looking up expectantly, channeling my inner Norman Vincent Peale, believing that Matisyahu will rediscover his inner Stubb’s, and that good things are a-gonna come.